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Orhan Pamuk: Kafamda bir tuhaflik (A Strangeness in My Mind)

Orhan Pamuk has set many of his novels in Istanbul and quite a few of them could be said to be panegyrics to the city. However, this novel, which took him six years to write, is clearly his ultimate panegyric to his city. Though there is a human hero in this book, the real hero is Istanbul and its changing ways. Our human hero is Mevlut Karataş, a boza and yoghurt seller. He originally came from a rural village. His father had gone off to sell boza and yoghurt in Istanbul and Mevlut later joins him, both to go to school there (his father is illiterate but wants his son to have an education) and to help his father sell the boza and yoghurt.

However, we start with Mevlut’s elopement which, perhaps, typifies his not entirely successful life. On a visit to his village, he has seen a girl to whom he was attracted. He courted her from afar and arranged to elope with her, with a complex plan, involving a friend with a car. She is, of course, covered up. By the time the friend gets them to the station, he realises that he has been tricked. This is not the pretty youngest sister but the ugly older sister he has eloped with. To his credit, he sticks with her and they marry and have two daughters. He carries on as a boza and yoghurt seller, making a living, if not a particularly good one. He has tried other jobs but always goes back to selling yoghurt and boza. But things have changed very much in Istanbul – this will be one of the key themes of the novel – and he is not sure he likes it. He finds, now, that he is invited into people’s homes not just to sell yoghurt but as a sideshow for the rich and sophisticated, who ask him questions about his life.

His life! When he joined his father, Mustafa, Mustafa was bitter. What many of the poor people coming in from the Anatolian plain did was to build a house on unoccupied and unused public land. The secret was either to build on it or to carefully guard it and fence it off and then get a local councilman (for an appropriate fee, of course) to certify that the individual owned it. The municipality sometimes objected but all too often did not. Mustafa had built a house together with his relatives but they had tricked him out of it (in his view – they have a different view) and he now has a small house where Mevlut comes to live with his father. A community had grown up around this hill, on which many houses had now been built, with a school, shops and even a sophisticated mosque, built by the local shop-owner.

As Mevlut grows up, we see his problems at school, not helped by having to work at night with his father, selling yoghurt. He wants to be the first in his family to complete six years at school, but sometimes does well and other times does not. He tries to please the teacher for which he is rewarded by being able to sit at the front, which he likes, but sometimes things go wrong and he is sent to the back with the rowdy element. We watch him grow up, including, naturally, his interest in the opposite sex – he masturbates a lot and even goes to the porno cinema, shocked at himself but unable to resist. Military service follows, at which he does quite well but, by this time, he has his eye on what he thinks is the woman he loves and writes regularly to her, learning later, as we have seen, that it is her sister.

We continue to follow his less than successful life. He tries his hand at various activities – being a waiter, an ice-cream seller, selling rice, chicken and chickpeas, a parking lot attendant, a restaurant manager and electricity meter reader. All of them bring their own problems, which Pamuk describes sympathetically, and they generally do to work out for various reasons.. Life changes. Istanbul changes. Customs change, buildings change, people change. There is a telling passage about half way through the book.

During these years of unquestioning gratitude for all of life’s blessings, Mevlut was only dimly aware of the gentle passage of time, the death of some pine trees, the way some old timber houses seemed to disappear overnight, the construction of six- or seven-story buildings on those empty plots where kids used to play football and streets vendors and the unemployed used to take afternoon naps, and the growing size of the billboards and posters on the streets, just as he barely registered the passing of seasons and the way leaves dried up and fell off trees.

And again, a few pages later:

Mevlut has been in Istanbul for twenty years. It was sad to see the old face of the city as he had come to know it disappear before his eyes, erased by by new roads, demolitions, buildings, billboards, shops, tunnels, and flyovers.

It is is this, as much as the story of Mevlut’s fairly ordinary life and the portrait of Istanbul, as seen from the point of view of the ordinary people that is the theme of this book. Life changes and we have to change with it. Mevlut struggles and just about gets through, with two constants in his life – boza selling and his love for his family.

While this is certainly an interesting book, particularly if you like books where a city is as much the hero as the characters, it does not have the story and thus the edge that several of his previous books had. It is clearly a labour of love and, as it is Pamuk, it is beautifully written but I do not think it will be remembered as one of his greatest works.

Publishing history

First published in 2014 by Yapı Kredi
First English translation 2015 by Alfred A. Knopf